My Year in Books: 2020
Tippets by Taps #154: Babies, books, Jack Ma, the National Guard, and more. Enjoy!
A warm welcome to Tippets by Taps, where we look at trends across commerce, retail, the future of work, as well as a few fun tidbits from around the web. Before we jump in, I wanted to wish you a Happy New Year (although admittedly it feels like a lot longer than two weeks since we turned the page on 2020)! It has been eight weeks since the last issue of Tippets. The end of the year saw a combination of work, family obligations, and the arrival of my second child add to everything else that put 2020 at the top of the list of Most Intense Year Ever. I was not able to dedicate the requisite headspace to writing in public so I took what, in hindsight, turned out to be a much-needed break to reset. I am excited to get back to publishing, and I look forward to your feedback as I continue to experiment with form, content, and frequency here.
On a personal note, I am thrilled to introduce my daughter, Alia. Pronounced "Ah-lee-yah", she was born on the morning of December 29th. Both she and her mom are doing great, and her older brother approves, already demonstrating exemplary big brother behavior! We brought her home in time to see 2020 turn into 2021. The new year began in a sleep-deprived haze of joy, hope, and the harsh reality that when it comes to kids, 1+1 ≠ 2 when it comes to workload 😅
There are many superlatives that could be ascribed to 2020 (“Craziest Year Ever” anyone?) “Taps’ Most Active Year of Book Reading” will not be one of them. I worked my way through 15 books last year. Mostly non-fiction, their themes centered on finding meaning, working through troubled times, and creative output. While I didn’t finish my reading challenge of 26 books (I am choosing not to count toddler classics I memorized this year like Ten Apples Up on Top, Dragons Love Tacos, One Button Benny, Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth, P is for Potty, and Goodnight Construction Site), all things considered, it was not a bad year for reading. Below is the list with quick thoughts on each, as well as a link to the Taps’ Notes review if available. If you’re interested, you can find my 2019 Reading List here. Oh, and as I pull together my reading list for 2021 please click the link below and send me your favorite book!
Note: A * indicates a strong recommendation.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen*
This book won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It’s easy to see why. Set in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, the story’s narrator is a communist double agent who moves to Los Angeles with other Vietnamese refugees. An incredibly well-crafted story, it explores big questions of identity, friendship, and love while wrapped in a shroud of espionage and war. I highly recommend you pick this up!
Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang
Ted Chiang is my favorite science fiction writer. The author of Arrival (which went on to become a major motion picture), his latest collection of stories does not disappoint.
The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason
Set during World War I, this is a story of a young medical resident who enters the bowels of war, expected to treat the sick and the dying despite never previously lifted a scalpel. It was an entertaining read, but I was left wanting more from the ending than I was given.
Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin*
This was an incredible read by an author who clearly loves her subjects. A study of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, and Lyndon Johnson, she compares and contrasts these Presidents and their leadership styles, particularly how their lives and philosophies shaped the decisions and actions they took during their time in office. It was an informative and well-written look at the characteristics that define leadership. It was especially refreshing during a year where Presidential leadership was sorely lacking.
Caste: The Origin of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson*
This was the best book I read all year. Wilkerson reframes the discussion about racism in the United States as a discussion about casteism, comparing, and contrasting the US with the caste systems in India and in Nazi Germany. She writes:
What some people call racism could be seen as merely one manifestation of the degree to which we have internalized the larger American caste system, a measure of how much we ascribe to it and how deeply we uphold it, act upon it, and enforce it, often unconsciously, in our daily lives.
I will certainly be writing more detailed thoughts on this book once I have time to go back and process my notes. Suffice it to say, a tremendous, important and timely read.
I Am Not Your Negro by James Baldwin*
According to Wikipedia, James Baldwin "was an American novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist." While accurate, this description does not do him justice. Baldwin was an exceptional storyteller. Incredibly articulate with complete mastery of the English language, he paints with his words like few I have encountered. My introduction to James Baldwin was I Am Not Your Negro, a 2016 documentary and accompanying book. Both are based on 30 pages of James Baldwin's notes intended to be the foundation for a book exploring the history of racism in the United States, a book he sadly never wrote. The documentary is a beautiful, revelatory work that pulls from Baldwin's words, supplementing his pages with videos, images, and interviews from his life. It is a culmination of his life's work, thoughts formed over 50+ years, in their most distilled and simple form. While written almost 40 years ago, the questions he asks, the lessons he imparts, are especially relevant today. I strongly encourage you to read and watch the piece. You can read my full Taps’ Notes here.
How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton Christensen
Clayton Christensen, the Harvard professor whose theory of disruptive innovation made him a teacher sought after by the likes of Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Reed Hastings, and Andy Grove, died in January 2020 at the age of 67. An influential management thinker, he coined the term ‘disruptive innovation’ but maligned what he saw as misuse. While his book “The Innovators Dilemma” is his most famous work, “How You Measure Your Life” is his best. It asks tough questions of its reader, offering perspective, and forcing introspection. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The Spy and the Traitor by Ben McIntyre
An insane story about a Russian spy turned double agent who worked with the British to steal secrets and end the cold war, the most amazing part of this read is that it’s true. It reads like a John Le Carre (RIP…) novel which I couldn’t put down. Definitely the most entertaining read from 2020, I highly recommend it!
The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
A quick read by an author most famous for his work on Stoicism, this served as a good reminder to lean into the challenges we are presented with instead of avoiding them. It’s got a number of examples from people across time and industries - John D. Rockefeller, Amelia Earhart, Ulysses S. Grant, Steve Jobs - that are entertaining, but the main message you can draw from the title.
Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Stephen Pressfield
From the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance comes a wonderful kick in the pants for writers everywhere. It’s not so much a ‘how-to’ book as it is a motivational speech with concrete tactics and tips to bring to your writing with examples from his own career that spans advertising, novels, and screenplays (including a brief anecdote about an important lesson learned while rewriting a porno).
The Practice: Shipping Creative Work by Seth Godin
A quick read on the importance of turning creative work into a regular practice, and shipping not for oneself but for others. The important point of the book is to remind you that creativity is not a special talent reserved for the blessed ones. You just need to begin, establish a practice and stick to it.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk
The Elements of Style is the best kind of guidebook - short, sweet, and packed full of good advice that one can bring to one’s own writing. I recommend it to anyone looking to improve their writing as they build up a more consistent writing practice.
The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Robert Iger
Bob Iger is Disney’s famed CEO. He took over the top spot in the House of Mouse in 2005 and since then has taken the company to heights he admits he never imagined. He has overseen some of the boldest moves in media (perhaps even business) history including buying Pixar and Marvel (some of the best M&A deals ever), remaking Disney classics into live-action, and transitioning the company into digital with Disney+. The crazy thing is, at least according to this book, Bob Iger was never supposed to be Bob Iger. While certainly self-serving and likely glossing over more of the unpopular moves he made, this autobiography is a great read.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius*
There are books that, without the requisite life experience, will simply not resonate. This is one of those. Had I encountered this collection of personal essays earlier in life, I would have almost certainly failed to grapple with its weight. Marcus Aurelius wrote Meditations as a means to explore his own life, repeatedly going back over the same themes. How should we live our lives? How can we ensure that we do what is right? How can we protect ourselves against the stresses and pressures of daily life? How should we deal with pain and misfortune? How can we live with the knowledge that someday we will no longer exist? During this read I found myself continually pausing to ponder his statements, wondering how I might apply them to my own life. I also took inspiration from how this, one of the most influential people in history, found time to ponder philosophy and its application to everyday life. Not a fast read, but a worthwhile one. You can read my full Taps’ Notes here.
No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer
Reed Hastings built Netflix into a household name. His company has redefined what it means to be a media company, forever changing the nature of content and delivery. However, some argue that the most important thing that has come out of Netflix is the 127-page Culture Deck that was released in 2009 and has since accumulated over 20 million views. It defined Netflix’s new and controversial approach to recruiting, hiring, and talent management, and helped propel Netflix into the stratosphere. “No Rules Rules” is Hastings’ book on company building, and what he says is the real key to Netflix’s success: its culture. Unlike more autobiographical reads chronicling the building of a company, this offers tactical and applicable insights and tips that can be applied to one’s own business. A solid read.
Other Tippets from around the web:
In my last issue I wrote about the Ant that Poked the Dragon - Jack Ma poking the Chinese government resulting in a halting of the IPO. I wrote:
…while we might never know the full story, one thing is for certain: there is more to the tale of the Ant and the Dragon than meets the eye.
Well that’s certainly true. Jack Ma hasn’t been seen publicly since October when he spoke on stage at the conference, Alibaba is under more intense scrutiny, and no one has any idea what’s next. The rumormill is spinning with stories of Jack being dead, in jail, laying low, even acting as an AC repair man! Stay tuned, this story gets wilder by the week.
During the pandemic, we've seen unlikely heroes emerge. But I don't think anyone expected Dippin' Dots to join those ranks.
Why you might ask?
The vaccine must be stored at -94 degrees Fahrenheit to remain effective at fighting the coronavirus, not an easy feat for many facilities. Dippin' Dots operates freezers that dip to -122 degrees Fahrenheit.
The horrific events that took place on January 6th at the Capitol in D.C were a jolt back to reality - the country certainly doesn’t operate on a “new year, new you” mentality. The swirl of emotion - fear, sadness, anger, despair - witnessing acts of terror and insurrection were in stark contrast to those of hope and love I had holding my newborn. The National Guard has now been deployed to the Capitol and other state capital cities ahead of Wednesday’s inauguration. I have often heard of the National Guard being called upon to support various efforts like Hurricane Katrina and policing but went looking for more insight into their setup. This piece offers a good overview of the most unique branch of the US military.
I am a huge Robert Caro fan. The famed author is getting a well deserved permanent exhibit at the New-York Historical Society. In this piece we get a look at, among other things, the author’s workspace.
Her quest began in Mr. Caro’s office. There are no knickknacks, no works of art; the only appliances are a coffee maker and an electric pencil sharpener.
“I try to have nothing in the room that’s not about writing,” he said. “It’s hard enough to concentrate.”
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